A journalist for 60 or so years, Shirley Stott-Despoja sadly waved goodbye to my Third Age Column in The Adelaide Review in August 2018, after a happy alliance with the monthly since 2008.
No one suggested I should give up, my editors were kind and I understanding. They knew I’d been through a period of intense spinal pain since just after my 80th birthday and felt exhausted, unable to commit to first rate columns according to my own judgment. Perhaps I was wrong, but it seem right at the time.
I just needed to push a bit harder and had every encouragement to do so. Alas, pain saps energy, and a good deal of energy is needed to write one’s best.
I became rather isolated despite still being able to drive, and my family living close. My surviving childhood friends, friends of university days, lived in the State I had deserted.
Losing confidence was worse than pain. I’ve always been a loner. Life just took me that way. Facebook posts helped me to exercise my wits. There are many Facebook contributors of senior years, leading lives to the peak of their abilities. Of course these physical abilities varied widely, if not so much their mental ones. I do enjoy the company of 60 to 90 year olds with huge experience of life; who had had careers. Poets, singers, journos, dog trainers…all sorts. They were funny and inventive, and some of them were relations I now had a chance to know better.
But it is easy to become lost in the forests of the night. And that is what happened. Although I was sound of mind and some parts of my body, I began to have dark thoughts. Not of suicide but of painful isolation. Lights in the bedrooms in my street caused pangs of jealousy.
I realised that even severe pain can be borne well with someone at one’s side. I perked up when my carers came each day. I slumped when they left 90 or 180 minutes later. I had some really interesting young women eager to help me: to shop, encourage my appetite, discuss my cat…they were excellent young women. I grew fond of them and suffered when they left for better jobs, better pay sometimes, and higher education. They had known just how much to talk about their kids and their more exciting lives. When they left, things changed for me
The forests of the night grew denser.
I have written and published about the horror of my childhood, standing as a little kid between my warring, violent parents who seemed to have no thought of me at all, begging them to stop. In the 1940s, running to the police station for help was a waste of time. The police simply told this child to go home. A cop, who happened to live next door, said he couldn’t interfere between husband and wife. That meant nothing to a terrified 8 year old.
My brothers and a sister still living at home were much older and went on with their lives. We only talked about it once in my adulthood that I can recall. Of course they were young and looking for happiness and partners….I excuse them, but cannot forgive them for leaving me alone with the fighting parents. Enough of that.
What you need to know is that childhood terrors, violence in childhood, never, ever, leave you. Though I suppressed them for more than 50 years. Now they came back again.
One lonely night I felt that terror again. I ran after midnight into my front garden hoping for….what? Safety, comforting, company… ? I was that little terrified little girl again.Then reality made me turn back to my house. My cat hadn’t stirred! Panic attack.
Not psychotic, but bad enough.
Perhaps respite care again, in an aged care home, was the answer.
Dear God, what was I thinking? Despite assurances that this would not happen, I was in the next room to a patient with dementia. She cried incessantly for help at night: no space between words, just help help help help, until I fell asleep at 215 am.
The staff seemed traumatised: as upset as I, anyway. My daughter had been assured that previous mistakes of this kind would not be repeated. I was on the ground floor. Dementia was upstairs, she was told.
Previously I had tried respite in another facility. No fruit, no salad….I was told it was too easy to choke on such foods. The third woman at our table for four slumped onto the table cloth each meal. It was a horror movie.
A young, gay Carer unburdened his heart to me in the morning sunshine, furtive looks around while he spoke of uncaring, profits that determined decisions that sickened him. He left next day. The manager couldn’t get me out fast enough when he knew I, too intended to leave. He was a pig.
I tried another place for respite. Again, only the worst dementia patients seemed separated from others. As I ate my cornflakes one morning a woman sprang at a serving Carer and slapped her hard across the face. The Carer hardly flinched but went on serving.
People settled there much longer really didn’t want me at their tables. They didn’t want conversation.They liked the status quo too much, presumably because they had had a hard time adjusting. I landed, after being “ removed” from others, (and I assure you I did nothing more heinous than try to initiate a little conversation) with a couple in their 90s.
The woman told me she had done interesting work during the war. At last, someone with a career, something to talk about. But no, she preferred not to talk about it, she said, and resumed squabbling with her husband.
Friendships were impossible I decided. I drove home from that respite almost every day. Not exactly the plan, but was I to play a simplistic form of Scrabble, with big letters, or bingo? I became self critical.
You cow, Shirley. Ungrateful.
But self accusations didn’t help the fact that I do get a buzz out of advanced level scrabble, a chat about former jobs, a wry laugh at declining physical abilities, books we were rediscovering…not much to ask, but where were those with similar interests?
The staff sometimes talked to me, busy though they were. The chaplain was interesting. But that wasn’t the idea, was it? I did some painting: my beloved watercolour which is always rather lonely and hard. I’d have been better off painting or writing at home.
Reading my Facebook messages, I saw a post by a younger person, discussing some restless old person moving “ yet again” to find old age accommodation that suited her. The writer’s tone was contemptuous: ‘I don’t know what she expects‘.
I do. She wanted some conversation, some activities that didn’t insult her intelligence, not to see demented patients attacking staff ; green salad, healthy food. (Never offer me mince, will you?) Where good food was available, so, alas for me, were the demented patients.
There was one really weird place with impressive senior staff lined up to greet us when we arrived but who disappeared next day, never to be seen again. Replaced by slap it down and take it or leave it servers. Fading photographs on the walls spoke of better days in care. The air conditioning broke down in my room, a brown, antique wall thing. 1970s? I was freezing. I left again.
I find it hard to mention that at another place, woman called Shirley (lots of Shirleys) flirted, using awful language, with a man sitting next to me. He fled. I died of embarrassment. Never dared speak to him again. Suppose he got his Shirleys mixed up? Shudder.
Underneath the scant grey hair I knew there were good surviving brains, which, for lack of challenging interests, were fast disappearing.
I’ve had it with respite, I decided. I will have to survive alone. With regular but not the constant presence of carers in the house: my home, which I find increasingly difficult to leave.
My busy family sacrificing spare time to visit me; to take me out for a meal. My amazing, kind grandchildren, with their own busy lives, doing what they can to bring some outside life to grandma. Charming, thoughtful, helpful neighbours. But I put off visitors because I am losing confidence…
Oh yes, I realise I am privileged in so many ways. But alone at night, the childhood past I thought was tucked away, sometimes intrudes, though I handle it better now, thanks to excellent advice.
Then a miracle.
My daughter found me an excellent provider of Carers in the home and I won the lottery of old age…Carers matched to aged people they care for. They can make you forget pain; they can offer great conversations and…fun. They can be professional and friends at the same time. They bring us back into the world again. May you have my good fortune.